Cashing in land for development will help UMass Boston solve some longstanding financial problems.
But it doesn’t solve the latest challenge to this urban campus, long starved for money and love: UMass Amherst, the system’s flagship university, is now boldly encroaching on its turf.
First, the good news. The deal between the University of Massachusetts and Accordia Partners is legitimate cause for celebration. UMass will get an upfront payment of somewhere between $192 million and $235 million for the old Bayside Expo Center site — an excellent rate of return for a 20-acre parcel that was originally purchased for $18.7 million. Accordia, a firm run by a team of veteran Boston developers, will get a 99-year lease for mixed-use development.
After the initial debt from the purchase is paid off, all the proceeds will go to UMass Boston, promised UMass president Martin T. Meehan, from the 32nd floor of One Beacon Street — the lofty home of the UMass Club. “This is a game-changer,” declared interim chancellor Katherine Newman. “This is like the first day of the rest of our lives at UMass Boston.” One known priority is to finish repairs connected to a vast underground garage that drove up UMass Boston debt after it crumbled beneath the campus years ago. Beyond that, Newman will oversee a campus planning process to determine where the rest of this windfall goes.
It’s UMass Boston, so not everyone is buying all the hype. A small contingent of faculty showed up to protest what they called a secret deal. Their lack of faith in the university for which they labor is an issue that needs to be addressed. “We’ve had a lot of broken promises,” said Marlene Kim, president of the Faculty Staff union. Newman, who was appointed interim chancellor last June, has been working hard to stabilize the UMass Boston budget and rebuild morale after layoffs and program cutbacks. Asked if she sees rebuilding trust as a matter of time and of convincing faculty their opinion counts, she said, via e-mail, “That is my hope.”
Newman and the UMass Boston faculty should find common ground in their shared concern over the recent invasion by UMass Amherst, via its controversial acquisition of the Mount Ida College campus in Newton. After Mount Ida suddenly closed, UMass Amherst paid $75 million for its 74 leafy acres. The official reason was to give UMass Amherst students a place from which to pursue Boston area internships. But as UMass Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy made clear in a lengthy Boston Globe magazine profile, the acquisition is part of a bigger plan to transform UMass Amherst into “Cambridge West.” Part of his mission is to offer graduate courses in the life sciences and technology fields, he told the Globe.
The potential for overlap with UMass Boston is already clear. For example, the Dorchester campus offers a popular graduate course in “Business Analytics.” Through its Mount Ida campus, UMass Amherst is offering a graduate program in “Business and Analytics.” Pointing out the “and” as one point of difference, Jeff Cournoyer, a spokesman for the University of Massachusetts, forwarded an explanation from UMass Amherst, saying that it’s a one-year accelerated program “that’s an entirely different program” from the UMass Boston course, “with an entirely different course structure and curriculum and targeted at an entirely different audience.”
Asked about it, Newman said, “Does this worry me? Well, yes. Our program in this field has been growing at a very healthy rate, and our College of Management relies on it for its budget. But my response is to work very hard to promote our own program and to duplicate its success on campus in a downtown location.”
The Bayside deal gives UMass Boston some needed financial breathing space. But it will do nothing to stop committed competition from UMass Amherst. That should be reason enough for faculty and leadership to stop fighting each other and fight together for a stronger UMass Boston.